TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Karl Rove, was called the architect by President George W. Bush, the architect of Bush's successful reelection campaign. A critical bestselling book about Rove used the nickname "Bush's brain," and described Rove as the co-president. In the Washington Post, reporters Peter Baker and Michael Fletcher describe Rove as, quote, "the primary author of President Bush's two successful national campaigns and perhaps the most influential and controversial presidential strategist of his generation," unquote.
Karl Rove ran George W. Bush's campaigns beginning with his run for governor of Texas. Rove served as senior advisor to President Bush for seven years, and also served as deputy chief of staff during Bush's second term. He left the White House at the end of August 2007. Now he's a Fox News contributor and writes a weekly op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. He's written a new memoir called "Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight."
Karl Rove, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, you always loved politics. You supported Nixon at the age of nine, Goldwater at the age of 13. You started off in college, in the college Republican group. You ran for office. So what was it like to be a young Republican at the height of the anti-war protests and the counterculture?
Mr. KARL ROVE (Former Deputy Chief of Staff for President George W. Bush; Author): Well, you know, it obviously wasn't a popular position to have on campus. I mean, we were a beleaguered minority. On the other hand, you know, in the 1972 election, for example, which pitted Nixon for reelection against George McGovern, the youth vote split basically 50-50.
I mean, McGovern had a slight lead among - overall, and a good lead on college campuses, but the non-college-student youth vote sort of washed most of that out. So it was possible, as a young person, even in the height of the Vietnam War and the unpopularity of the war, to be a conservative on campus.
And what was also interesting was this was a time where the people who I was involved with got a sense - and this was sort of, you know, a minority position on campus - that we could actually affect things, that we could make a difference.
And as a result, the group of kids that I was involved in College Republicans, many have stayed friends in the years since, and we include in our number two United States senators, several members of Congress, dozens of state and local elected officials, a couple of Supreme Court justices and lots of people who have had, you know, big roles in politics in the decades since and many who've led very successful careers in law and the professions and in business.
And in part, our involvement in College Republicans at this very tough time for the GOP was, you know, was an experience that confirmed we could take on big challenges and overcome adversity.
GROSS: You are really the person who saw George W. Bush as having a political future, as even possibly being president at a time when not even George W. Bush saw that as his calling.
Mr. ROVE: Well, I hate to correct you on that, but he also, I think - look, he had an interest in politics early. He ran for Congress as a very young man. He then went off into business, in both the oil business and then the baseball business, but you know, he had political ambitions.
He thought seriously about whether or not to run for governor in 1990, but decided it would be inappropriate with his father as president, and that it wasn't the right time for him.
But he had a political interest, in 1993 was seriously interested in running for governor. That predated any suggestion I might have had to him. I didn't carry to him the suggestion that he run for governor. I carried to him a suggestion that I hoped he would run for governor, and I thought he would both win the nomination and win the general election.
GROSS: You strike me as being opposites. He's from a kind of, you know, pedigreed political family. You're not. He's - you're obsessed with politics. He probably wasn't quite. He was a cheerleader, the handsome guy. You're the bookish guy. So was this an opposites-attract thing?
Mr. ROVE: Well, there are a lot of similarities. We're both hunters and outdoorsmen. We're both competitive. We're both readers. I mean, I don't want to overdo the, you know, the he's all one thing and I'm completely the opposite. There are a lot of things that we have in common. But we've been friends for many, many years, and, you know, there are differences, obviously, but there are things that we share in common.
GROSS: Michael Isikoff, in April of 2001, described George W. Bush as the least experienced presidential nominee of modern times. He says it was Rove who shaped the agenda, message and strategy that got Bush, the least experienced presidential nominee of modern times, into the White House. Do you agree that he was the least experienced presidential nominee of modern times? And if you agree, was that a plus for you?
Mr. ROVE: I don't agree. Jimmy Carter had served one term as governor of Georgia. George W. Bush at least was in his second term when he ran. George W. Bush had run a baseball club. He'd been in the oil business. He put together big deals. He'd been part of his father's presidential campaign. He had knowledge of politics that was pretty good.
And look, he certainly had more political experience than a, you know, Democrat state senator from Illinois who was in the middle of his first term for the United States Senate. I mean, Bush had run a big state. He was the governor of the second most populous state in the union.
GROSS: Everybody says that the governor of Texas is a slightly diminished role than the governor of many other states in terms of the role...
Mr. ROVE: Terry, I wouldn't say diminished role. I would say - I think you'd more correct that it was a weak constitutional post.
GROSS: There you go.
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Mr. ROVE: And that's why I wanted - in part, I wanted to write the book because you just said two things here that I wanted to set the record straight: One is that Rove contrived the Bush agenda when he ran for governor, and then second of all, that the governor of Texas is a weak constitutional office. And the first is inaccurate.
Bush contrived the agenda. In fact, I talked about this in the book. This is what was so attractive of him as a candidate. He had a clear understanding of why he wanted to run. He wanted to reform education. He wanted to reform the juvenile justice system. He wanted to reform welfare. He had thought, over the years, about ways in which he could do it.
The number issue for him was education, and how do you have an accountability system that sets goals and standards and holds schools to account for failure.
But he had also an interesting approach on each of these issues in the language that he wanted to use. My only suggestion to him in the 1993-94 gubernatorial campaign was that he add a fourth element to this. Texas was a hotbed of lawsuit abuse, and small businesspeople were particularly concerned about rising insurance premiums for their liability coverage, and we had a rash of lawsuits that were making the Texas business climate unattractive. My only suggestion was to add that as a fourth item to his laundry list.
And then, you're right, the Texas governorship is a weak constitutional position. And you have a newcomer come to Austin like he did in January of 1995, our legislature meets every other year, biennial legislative session for 140 days, and it starts a couple weeks before the new governor gets sworn in.
So by tradition and by precedent, the new governor has very little impact on that first legislative session, yet Bush had a spectacularly successful legislative session in which he passed all four of his major reform packages.
And the Texas political observers and press were, you know, amazed at his success in doing so and wrote about it in the aftermath of the session.
GROSS: My guest is Karl Rove. He's written a new memoir called "Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Karl Rove. He has now written a book called "Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight."
Let's talk about the kind of political campaigning that you developed, first of all, building a majority out of micro-targeting, out of finding demographics within demographics that would vote Republican.
Let me read something that Todd Purdum wrote in Vanity Fair in December of 2006. He described an approach of campaigning that always found villains -gays, unions, trial lawyers, liberals, elitists, terrorists - and that candidates could both use this to crack the electorate at a vulnerable spot and to define themselves in sharp relief.
Do you feel like that's what you did, that you found villains that you could use in campaigns: gays, unions, trial lawyers, liberals, elitists, terrorists?
Mr. ROVE: Yeah, he ends the article by saying splitter - Rove is the splitter, and splitters never win. Well, he may be right that splitters never win, but I won. So what does that say about Todd Purdum's underlying argument?
I think based on his view and the views of others, implicit in it is a sense that the American people are easily misled and that you win elections by appealing to their base instincts.
As you said, he suggests that it's villains that motivate people to vote one way or the other in American politics. I have no similarly dark and pessimistic view of the American voters. I think the American...
GROSS: Well, he's saying it motivates some people. We're talking more of, like, micro-targeting here. So...
Mr. ROVE: Well, look, let's - you know, that's not what he said. He said that this is what changes - this is what is the determinative factor in American elections. I don't agree. I don't agree that the American people are - those that decide elections are motivated by fear and anger at certain, quote, "villains," end quote.
And - let's explain what micro-targeting is to your listeners. Let's step back for just a minute and think about the broader problem in politics. There's never enough time, and there's never enough money. And left to its own devices, campaigns tend to talk to the people who are already committed.
You know, it's more comfortable for a candidate, if they're a Democrat, to go to the, you know, Upper East Side, you know, left-wing Democrat Caucus. If you're a Republican, again, it's more, you know, comfortable to go to the Republican assembly of, you know, Orange County.
Micro-targeting is a way to help focus campaigns on voters who are up for grabs, voters who are, first of all, up for grabs when it comes to even participating in this political system. It allow you to - the micro-targeting allows you to identify groups of people who really are not disposed to participate in American politics unless somebody goes out and touches them and asks them to register and asks them to vote and encourages them to support a particular candidate.
The second group are people who, while they may be registered to vote, are really, you know, they're torn by all the things that go on in their lives. You know, they've got to pick up the laundry. The kids have got to go to the soccer practice - just all those things kept me from going to vote on Election Day. So who are the people who need extra help in order to make certain that they turn out to vote?
And then finally, who are the people out of, you know, out of all of these people who vote in elections, where are the big swatch of people who are actually up for grabs? And that's what micro-targeting allows you to do. It's a way to focus your efforts in a campaign.
GROSS: One of your goals, I think - particularly in the 2004 election - was to mobilize the evangelical vote, to mobilize the Christian right. And one of their...
Mr. ROVE: I'd say evangelicals. I disagree with your idea that there is a Christian right. In fact, the point I make in the book - which, you know, I hope people will read in its entirety - is that the view of evangelicals as a highly political, highly motivated, philosophically conservative, you know, with a well-organized, coherent framework to approach politics is wrong.
In fact, in 2004, we were going after a lot of evangelical voters who were skeptical of politics, some of them, particularly in the Midwest, concerned about the war. There's a strong - particularly in places like Minnesota and Iowa - a strong tradition among some evangelical communities to be, you know, to be dubious about war.
And so what we were attempting to do was take people who, if forced to make a decision between Kerry and Bush, would come down, we thought, on the Bush side and give them more information and surround them with more people to encourage them to participate in politics. And as a result, it was one of the elements that caused 25 percent more people to vote for Bush in 2004 than in 2000.
GROSS: One of the issues that was used to rally evangelical voters was fear of homosexuals and fear of the possibility of gay marriage, and...
Mr. ROVE: I disagree with you strongly on the first, Terry. I think to impute that people who have views in support of traditional marriage are somehow fearful of homosexuality is incorrect.
I found many, many people who have strong concerns about undermining traditional marriage, live truly Christian lives in which they, you know, they're not the first to cast a stone in which they love a neighbor like they'd like to be loved themselves.
So I agree with you that the motivation of some people in the 2004 election was the difference between the candidates over the issue of gay marriage. But again, let's - you know, can we step back for a minute and see how this intrudes into politics in 2004? As I say in the book...
GROSS: Well, I just want to say there was a lot of people in the leadership of churches and of lobby groups who were very anti-gay in their rhetoric, and, you know, the whole idea of, like hate the sin and love the sinner saw homosexuality as a sin and made that really clear during the election period. And I guess I'm really wondering...
Mr. ROVE: I - look, I disagree.
GROSS: ...were you comfortable with that?
Mr. ROVE: I disagree with that. Look, we were comfortable with what we did, which was when the Massachusetts superior judicial court in November of 2003 pushed this issue into politics by saying that there was - that traditional marriage was undermined in Massachusetts by a decision that said that gays had a right to single-sex marriage, to same-sex marriage.
And it was the courts that pushed this into the campaign. And if you recall, the day that the decision came down, all the candidates were immediately asked where they were on this.
And with one major exception, all the major candidates came down in favor of traditional marriage and against the Massachusetts decision. The one candidate who was the outrider was Howard Dean, but even he sort of said, you know, in essence, I'm in favor of what we do in Vermont, which is civil unions.
But at that point, people like John Kerry and George Bush had the same attitude, which was: We support traditional marriage, and we, you know, do not, in essence, want the courts to be making this decision.
But this was put into politics by the courts. And interestingly enough, the decision was a four-to-three decision, a narrow decision, and the opinion was written by the wife of the former New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, and it was the courts that put this in the middle of politics.
We didn't want it to be there. We wanted it to be decided as it ought to be decided, by the acts of state legislatures and the people's elected representatives meeting to determine this state by state, but it was the courts that forced this onto the national stage. Let's just be clear about that.
GROSS: Just one more thing about this, and then I want to move on to something else, and you'll say this isn't related, because that's what you say in the book.
Your father, who you were very close to - this is a long story, so I'll summarize it quickly. You father, you learned when you were in your late teens, was not your biological father, but you were still very close to him and it didn't seem to matter to either of you. I mean, your...
Mr. ROVE: Well, it mattered a lot...
GROSS: It was a shock, but...
Mr. ROVE: It was a shock, and it mattered a lot to me to realize that a man who had no obligation to me adopted me and was my father and loved me unconditionally, and what a great gift that was. And particularly coming from where he was, which was, you know, he had - I was not his biological issue.
GROSS: So when your parents separated when you were around, I guess in your late teens.
Mr. ROVE: Nineteen, about ready to turn 19, the day before I turned 19.
GROSS: Later, the question seemed to arise: Was your father gay? And you write: Could Dad have been gay? I didn't see it. I know he had gay friends and volunteered for years at the Desert AIDS Project in Palm Springs, but having gay friends or being concerned about whether someone who is sick gets driven to a clinic appointment or gets a delivery of groceries doesn't make you gay. To this day, I have no idea if my father was gay, and frankly, I don't care.
I know you hate this connection, but I can't help but wonder, if there's any chance that your father was gay, did you ever think that your style of politics, that your running against gay marriage - and I would argue, against...
Mr. ROVE: Running for traditional marriage.
GROSS: ...that that might have had a negative effect on his life.
Mr. ROVE: Well, I wrote about this in the book because - I didn't want to, but it - people, journalists and liberal commentators used allegations that my father was gay to attack me, to suggest - and I'm not suggesting you're exactly like it, because you're much more restrained in your rhetoric than many of them were - that somehow or another, it was hypocritical and inappropriate for me to defend traditional marriage when my father was gay.
Well, first of all, I don't know whether he was gay or not, and frankly, I never saw it and I don't care. But it's also, I think, hypocritical for people to suggest that if you have gay relatives or gay friends that you have to be in favor of gay marriage or you're somehow hypocritical.
We can have honest disagreements about policy issues and still love each other. And did we love - did I love my father? Yes. Did he love me? I have no doubt about it. My father asked me to be his executor, and I don't think that you ask somebody that you're ashamed of because you disagree over questions of sexual preference to be your executor and to take care of your most intimate wishes as you come to the end of your life if you somehow think they're hypocritical or don't love them.
So I wrote about this because commentators used the rumors that my father was gay to suggest things like that my father and mother divorced 30-some-odd years before because my father had told her he was gay, which is absolutely not true. And there's no evidence whatsoever of that. In fact, all the evidence in their private letters exchanged afterwards was that their marriage fell apart because my mother refused to follow him to a new job in Los Angeles that he had received.
There are allegations by journalists that somehow or another, she committed suicide 12 years later because she couldn't cope with the fact that he was gay. Well, that was absolutely - I mean, this was all an attempt to attack me, and the collateral damage was the reputations of two people I love very much: my mother, who had a very tragic and unhappy life, and my father, who was a great man who gave his children unconditional love and for which I will always be grateful.
GROSS: So but one more thing. When you say that you didn't know if your father was gay and that you didn't care, I guess I'm just kind of curious why you didn't want to know, because you say you didn't want to know. And it just seems to me if someone's gay, it's kind of who they love, who their partner is, it's partly at the essence of who they are. And why wouldn't you want to know that?
Mr. ROVE: Because, first of all, it's my father's decision to tell me. I mean, my father was an art collector. It was up to him to say I'm an art collector. I mean, it was up to my father - my father was a very private man. He was a taciturn Midwesterner, a Scandinavian to boot.
Mr. ROVE: And, for example, when my wife asked him about my mother late in his life, I was amazed. I was overcome when my father began to describe my mother and the relationship in intimate terms and to talk about her in a way that was so powerful about how much he loved her, and to begin to weep.
I mean, I was taken aback because it was - my father was a very private man. So, you know, it's not like I need to know my father's private views or private actions in order to know that I loved him. And, you know, it's sort of like -it was his business. And if he was, fine. If he wasn't, fine. But it was up to him to tell me what he was comfortable telling me, not for me to pry - and particularly since, look, this was not a question until people began, in the aftermath of his death, to make allegations about him.
At that point, he was not there. He wasn't able - it wasn't possible for me to say: Dad, tell me, were you, in the latter stages of your life, gay or not? All I could go on was what I knew from being around him, being close to him, having a loving father and, at the end of his life, listening to him tell me that when he died, he wanted his ashes spread at the family cabin, ancestral cabin in northern Wisconsin and to have his ashes mingled with those of my mother. They lie together for eternity along a lake in northern Wisconsin, and that was important to him, and I honored his wishes.
GROSS: My interview with Karl Rove will continue in the second half of the show. He's written a new memoir called "Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross, back with more of our interview with Karl Rove, the controversial Republican political strategist who ran President Bush's campaigns and served as his senior advisor and deputy chief of staff. He's written a new memoir called "Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight."
Let's move on to the war in Iraq. You write in your book: would the war in Iraq have occurred without weapons of mass destruction? I doubt it. President Bush would've looked for other ways to constrain Saddam Hussein.
I want to play a quote for you from a recent interview I did with Tom Ricks, former military correspondent for the Washington Post who wrote the bestseller "Fiasco" about how we got into the war and what happened after the invasion, and he has a new book called "The Gamble." And so this is Tom Ricks as recently recorded on FRESH AIR about the war in Iraq.
Mr. TOM RICKS (Author): We invaded a country on false premises, preemptively; I think, perhaps the worst decision in the history of American foreign policy. And Americans, I think, still don't grasp just what a terribly expensive decision that was, not just in money, but also in blood and moral credibility.
GROSS: Your reaction to that, invading a country on false premises, worst decision - worst foreign policy decision in American history?
Mr. ROVE: Well, I disagree. We thought he had WMD and it was a broad consensus, bipartisan in nature. In chapter 21 in my book, I take on the argument by those on the left that Bush lied about WMD. This was a political attack launched on July 15th of 2003 by Ted Kennedy and later that day, Tom Daschle, and the following day, John Kerry, John Edwards and Jane Harman.
The intelligence failure was that we thought he had WMD. We know that he had it as late as the late 1990s. Blix uncovered chemical and biological stocks in the mid-1990s. We found out that he had a nuclear program in contravention of the surrender agreement. He refused to let in U.N. inspectors into - and he refused to account for the material that he had in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. He thumbed his nose at 14 resolutions and there was a broad bipartisan consensus based on a widespread agreement within the intelligence community, not only intelligence agencies in the United States, but throughout the West that he had WMD.
We now know two things: we know that that happened in part because he wanted us to believe he had it. He thought that the presence of WMD, the view that he had it made him strong in the neighborhood, kept him in power in his own country, and was a deterrent to action by the West. We also know, through Charles Duelfer and David Kay's reports, that Saddam Hussein retained an active interest in these programs, believed that the sanctions put on him by the United Nations were eroding and would be gone soon, and was literally diverting tens of millions of dollars from the oil-for-food program to keep together the dual-use facilities and the scientists, engineers and technicians to reconstitute these programs. The chemical and biological programs could be restarted in a matter of weeks and he could begin again to have his nuclear program.
We had, in the aftermath of 9/11, to act on the information we had: a man who was thumbing his nose at the U.N., thumbing his nose at the international community, refusing to abide by the agreements he made after he was expelled from Kuwait. And we could not, in the aftermath of 9/11, allow him to remain in power. And imagine what would happen, Terry, if he were in power today with a third of the world's oil reserves and a restarted chemical and biological program, and in a weapons race for dominance in the Middle East with Iran and the two of them trying to prove who was the biggest opponent on the block to the West. It would be an ugly and dangerous situation for the world.
GROSS: Well, speaking of ugly and dangerous, look at the situation we're in now. Many experts agree that the war in Iraq created a whole new breed of Islamic extremists and potential terrorists. That Iraq was used to mobilize people from throughout from the Islamic world to become jihadists, to come to Iraq and become jihadists. And many experts who follow terrorism...
Mr. ROVE: Terry, that happened in the 1990s when we were not in an open war. We know that tens of thousands of people went through al-Qaida and other terrorist training camps in Afghanistan at a point we were ostensibly at peace. And, you know, what matters is winning or losing. People will be with us if they believe that we're winning. They will come in against us if they believe that we're losing.
And what happened in Iraq was - youre right, people - al-Qaida declared that the, you know, we removed Saddam Hussein, the country begins to sort of pull itself together, and then in 2006, with the onset of democracy, Zarqawi warns Osama that democracy will mean the end of their movement in Afgh-- in Iraq, and they declare it the central front in the war on terror.
And yes, they coerce people to there. And what happens is, when the surge begins to work and it becomes very dangerous and the risk-reward ratio turns very badly against them, they then start dispersing their people to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. So, yeah, this is a war we're in and the enemy gets a voice and a vote, and they get to decide where they want to confront us. And they did decide in 2006 - 2005 and 2006, because they feared the onset of democracy, to make Iraq the central war, the central front in the war on terror, you bet.
GROSS: You think its because they feared democracy in Iraq or because they hated the Americans?
Mr. ROVE: That's what Zarqawi said in his letter was if the American Iraq succeeds in providing a democracy here, it is the end of us and we need to stop it before it happens. And that's why they attacked the Golden Mosque in Samarra in an attempt to foment sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni and they succeeded. It took them about six to eight weeks for that dynamic to really get going. But when security began to fall apart in the country, the president faced a very tough decision which was, were we in essence going to surrender the, you know, whatever success had been painfully and expensively gained in Iraq to this or were we going to take the step that was necessary to stabilize it? And he took the step to stabilize it, the surge, and thank goodness he did.
And I want to applaud President Obama for doing three things: for not precipitously withdrawing troops from Iraq, but instead saying we're going to live up to the status of forces agreement negotiated by the previous administration, by continuing the policy of increasing the delivery of defensive technology to our partners throughout the Persian Gulf region and stepping up the U.S. military presence to deter Iran, and by making a very tough decision to take the principles underlying the Iraqi surge and applying them to Afghanistan. I think he took long - too long to arrive at the decision but he arrived at the right decision. And every American who's concerned about the outcome of the global war in terror has an obligation to step forward and give him their public support.
GROSS: My guest is Karl Rove. He's written a new memoir called "Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Karl Rove, the controversial political strategist who ran George W. Bush's presidential campaigns and served as his White House senior advisor and deputy chief of staff. He's written a new memoir called "Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight."
You chaired the White House Iraq Group, which was set up in August of 2002 by then-White House chief of staff Andrew Card. It met weekly. It included Condoleezza Rice, Karen Hughes, Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Scott McClellan, the former White House press secretary, wrote in his book: the White House Iraq Group had been set up in the summer of 2002 to coordinate the marketing of the war to the public. The script had been finalized with great care over the summer for a campaign to convince Americans that war with Iraq was inevitable and necessary.
And he said the group was not used to deliberately mislead the public, but that the more fundamental problem was the way Bush's advisers decided to pursue a political propaganda campaign to sell the war to the American people. As the campaign accelerated, caveats and qualifications were downplayed or dropped altogether; contradictory intelligence was largely ignored or simply disregarded.
How would you describe the function of the group?
Mr. ROVE: Yeah. With all due respect, I disagree with the recollection of Mr. McClellan, whom I dont believe was in these meetings. I also dont believe they began in the fall of 2003 - August of 2002, excuse me, before the war resolution. I think these meetings actually began after the war, and sometime in the summer to the fall of 2003, after the war. And the fundamental problem was we felt that a lousy job was being done in explaining operationally and tactically what was being done in Iraq.
And the question was, what could be done to sort of unplug the outlets, if you will, in order to get more information flowing out of Iraq? For example, there were, you know, there was little attention made to sort of briefing people on what was actually going on. There was little attempt to provide information from, say, National Guard units in Minnesota that were deployed there to what they were actually involved in doing. So this group met episodically, I believe, starting in the summer or fall of 2003 to discuss - it didnt meet weekly, it met far more episodically than that, to discuss what could be done to assist the - to encourage the military to do a better job of explaining what was going on and to help and assist the provisional authority and then the U.S. Embassy following that, in providing information.
And some of it involved deploying people over there to, you know, there were very few people there, particularly at the beginning, who had a press or media background who could handle these inquiries and could properly staff such a media operation. But I, you know, I frankly dont recall it in the way that Mr. McClellan does, and I think he's got the date on the start of it way too early.
GROSS: The Bush administration took us to war, saying that they believed for sure that there were weapons of mass destruction. Vice President Dick Cheney said, there is no doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction. But, in fact, they didnt possess weapons of mass destruction. You say that we probably...
Mr. ROVE: You know what? You got a good quote there from Cheney, but I could give you quotes from Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Bob Graham, John Kerry, John Edwards, Jay Rockefeller, even Ted Kennedy, who opposed the use of war - the authorization of the use of force resolution, nonetheless went out a couple of days later and said Saddam has weapons of mass destruction.
You know, Barbara Boxer, who opposed it, said Saddam has WMD. This was a widespread consensus that was believed by a lot of people. In fact, of the 110 Democrats who vote for the war resolution, I think it is 60 or 76 of them - 67 of them stand up on the floor of the House or Senate and say, Saddam has WMD. So this is a widespread consensus by opponents of the war and by supporters.
GROSS: That consensus was based on information provided by the Bush administration about weapons of mass destruction.
Mr. ROVE: No, that's incorrect.
GROSS: And for example...
Mr. ROVE: No, that's incorrect, Terry.
Mr. ROVE: It was provided by the intelligence community.
GROSS: Exactly. So...
Mr. ROVE: They had access to that same raw intelligence that the United States had. In fact, we later declassified what - the intelligence community, as I'm sure youre aware, your listeners may not, it makes its recommendations to policymakers in the form of what's called a National Intelligence Estimate. And we declassified virtually all of the - except for sources and methods, the NIE that Congress had access to that detailed what the intelligence community felt it knew about WMD in Iraq.
GROSS: Yeah. Let me quote Tom Ricks about the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate. And that's an estimate that's supposed to be - its a report that's supposed to be an authoritative report representing different agencies within the intelligence community. So Ricks says that in his - Ricks says that, in an interview I did with him, that this report succeeded brilliantly as a political document but as a professional intelligence product it was shameful. But it did its job, which wasnt really to assess Iraq's weapons programs but to sell a war.
I asked him, as a follow-up question when he said that, if the intelligence community was misled or if it had bad information. Here's what he had to say.
Mr. RICKS: You had a process, I think, where the top of the intelligence community, George Tenet, really I think didnt do well. Where he didnt seek out the best thinking and where dissents were either neglected or suppressed or ignored or minimized. So all the bias, as the information moved upward, was in one direction. It wasnt like all the doubts were eliminated. It was just all the doubts on one side of the argument were eliminated. And so all the evidence that said, yes, he had WMD moved upwards. All the people saying no were suddenly not heard from. And so the National Intelligence Estimate that was presented in the fall of 2002 fundamentally did not accurately reflect what we had spent billions of dollars trying to gather, the dated information about Iraq.
GROSS: So, you know, what Ricks is saying - yeah, go ahead. You heard what Ricks said.
Mr. ROVE: Yeah, I disagree. I mean, well, first all, I'm not the intelligence community expert. But could you imagine, this suggests that there is a conspiracy to stifle dissent. Well, look, the one thing we know about the intelligence community is that the intelligence community is fully capable of leaking dissent and disagreements with - with its own conclusions. And there is no conspiracy. In fact, if you read the NIE, you will see that in the NIE, it mentions dissents on specific points.
But let's stipulate, they got it wrong. And that's a problem because policymakers make decisions on the basis of the best available intelligence and in this instance they got it wrong. Now, part of the reason, as I explained earlier was Saddam wanted us to get it wrong, and part of the reason was that he was doing things that were necessary to reconstitute these programs. But I would also remind you, Terry, that intelligence gets it wrong the other way.
For example, Western intelligence had certain estimates of Libya's weapons program, but after the Taliban was removed, and as the United States and the West looked like they're serious about forcing Saddam Hussein to live up to his international agreements, Moammar Gadhafi says, you know what? I - if they're willing to be tough about those guys, I better cough up my programs - and working with British intelligence and American intelligence - got him to cough up those programs. And guess what? His biological and chemical programs were weaponized far beyond the capacity of Western intelligence that we were willing to accede to him, and his nuclear program was far more developed than Western intelligence thought. So we got it wrong both ways.
This is troubling, particularly since there are - look there are - we're great at getting things, you know, doing things electronically and sweeping, you know, electrons out of the air and off of the Internet and helping to understand, and we're good at sort of mapping the patterns. We are really not good, particularly in facing the enemy that we face, in getting actionable intelligence that's based on human sources. Really difficult to do. And as a result, you know, we get it wrong, and that's a problem for policymakers.
GROSS: Since the premise of the evasion of Iraq was that there were WMD, and they turned out to not be WMD, do you ever feel bad? Do you ever feel bad that we started the war? That so many lives were lost? That there are millions of Iraqi exiles now? That even in spite of the successful election that just happened, there's still a lot of uncertainty about whether Iraq will really be able to pull together a functioning government? Do you ever feel like maybe we made a mistake, or maybe we should've waited longer, maybe we should've waited longer until we had more international cooperation? Or do you feel that, you know, we did the right thing?
Mr. ROVE: I feel we did the right thing, given what we knew at the time. And look, I've sat there in those meetings more than you could ever imagine, Terry, with moms and dads and sons and daughters, of people who lost their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq. And I've been there, and I know how painful it is and it will - you cannot go to one of those meetings and come out and be same person ever again. But it is the right thing to do. Our country is safer for having removed this man. The world is a safer place.
You know, the democracy and the heart of Middle East - I write about this in the book. I was taken aback when a young aide to Abu Mazen said to me, does America understand that the world changed when the dictator fell? That the promise of democracy in the Middle East can change everything? And we will, you know, having a democratic ally in the heart of the Middle East, as an ally on the war on terror, is a symbol of what is possible.
And look, we face Islamic jihadism today, because in that part of the world, a life of oppression there are few outlets for expression and one of them is this, and we need to have it, you know, democracies dont tend to attack each other. Democracies tend to live in, you know, safety and security with their neighbors. Democracies tend to pay attention to the fundamental rights of every human being to live a life in freedom, and this important. And, you know, we had to act in the aftermath of 9/11 on the basis of what we felt we knew, and the world is a better place for him being gone.
He killed hundreds of thousands of his own people. He was a threat to us. He was a threat to his neighbors. He supported and sponsored terrorists. He paid the families of suicide bombers. He allowed terrorist camps within his country. He was an avowed enemy of our country and he was undermining, you know, great international institutions by refusing to live up to his obligations, and we were right to remove him and the world is a safer place for that having been done.
GROSS: But wasnt the goal after 9/11 to conquer al-Qaida - to stop al-Qaida? And Saddam Hussein really had - he was not al-Qaida. He wasnt affiliated with al-Qaida? Many people say we went after the wrong target. Sure, he was a despot. Yes, he did horrible, horrible things. But if our goal was to fight al-Qaida, Iraq was, many people would say, the wrong place.
Mr. ROVE: Well, I would say - I would point - first of all, I would point you to President Bush's speech to the Congress in which he outlined the strategy in which, you know, look, there are multiple terrorist groups around the world. Remember, the plot to attack the Library Tower - to fly an airplane into Library Tower in Los Angeles and bring down liners over the Pacific, it was not al-Qaida; it was an affiliate. It was another terrorist group led by another terrorist leader.
I mean we face, you know, this is not just al-Qaida. You know, al-Qaida is not what we see in Somalia. Al-Qaida is not the, you know, what's doing the acts of piracy off the Horn of Africa. You know, we face a network of groups, al-Qaida being the principal one, you know, and as a result, we got to put this in one frame. It's not just one individual, Osama bin Laden. It's just not one group. It is not even a network of groups. It is an ideology of jihadism, of a perversion of a great religion and the outcome of our battle, our struggle with them is going to define this century.
GROSS: Let's move on. My guest is Karl Rove. He's now written a book called "Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight."
Was it your goal to come up with a plan for a permanent Republican majority?
Mr. ROVE: No, not at all. In fact, you know, nothing is permanent in politics. That's not the nature of the American system. You know, there's competition between two parties and nobody dominates it forever. I mean that's not been the case at all. I mean weve had periods of durable dominance by one party or another. And then look, do I want a durable Republican majority? Do I want Republicans to win the next election? Yeah. But I've never said a permanent Republican majority because frankly, you can't have that in the American political system, and we dont want it.
You have a permanent majority in places like the former Soviet Union or Baathist Iraq. You dont have it in a democracy. In a democracy, there's give and take between the two parties and, you know, as that famous expression taken from the Bible that an African-American Union soldier told his former master when he ran across him during the Civil War. He said, you know, top - bottom rail on top, and that's the way of the American political system - and thank God we have that.
GROSS: My guest is Karl Rove. He's written a new memoir called "Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight."
We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Karl Rove, the controversial political strategist who ran George W. Bush's presidential campaigns and served as his White House senior adviser and deputy chief of staff. He's written a new memoir called "Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight."
Now you are no longer actively working on campaigns, is that right?
Mr. ROVE: Well, I'm not a consultant. No. But I'm actively helping people by, you know, appearing at their fundraisers and giving them advice and doing what I can.
GROSS: But youre not managing campaigns.
Mr. ROVE: Oh no. No.
GROSS: How come? I mean, you obviously loved doing that. Why aren't you doing that now?
Mr. ROVE: Well, you know, Terry, you can't go back in life, can you? I mean did you have a great job in the past that you like doing?
GROSS: God, I've been doing this for so long...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: ...it's like it's my whole adult life.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ROVE: Well, you know - and you love it. It's your passion.
GROSS: Yeah, I love it.
Mr. ROVE: But you can't go back and I did that, you know, and I enjoyed it, but you got to go on to the next chapter in life.
GROSS: Are you enjoying being a commentator on Fox?
Mr. ROVE: I am. And I like writing for the Wall Street Journal. It's probably the most interesting thing I do, because I've got to say something that's interesting and do so in a small number of words. I write for Newsweek. I'm making speeches, and then I'm doing things that, you know, I'm helping the Navy Special Warfare Foundation and I'm on the board of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation. I'm on the board of the McDonald Observatory. I'm doing things that I, you know, they're sort of my personal passions.
GROSS: When you hear your colleague on Fox News, Glenn Beck, talking about his conspiracy theories, does it - are you ever troubled at the vitriol in some political dialogue now - how toxic some political dialogue has become?
Mr. ROVE: You know, its interesting, whenever I feel like politics today has gotten too vitriolic, and I do think on the right and the left that there's, you know - I mean MSNBC, I mean the ugly things they say about me there, I mean, you know, it's pretty remarkable. But go back to 1800. I love reading about the 1800 presidential election, because we think weve got it tough today, that in our early democracy, boy, they were really tough.
In fact, the sainted Thomas Jefferson arranges to hire an editor for a newspaper in Richmond, Virginia for the expressed purpose of then having him write the most scathing editorials questioning everything from the manhood to the mental stability of his opponent in the presidential election, John Adams. A famous libelist named Caldwelder(ph). And this works tremendously during the 1800 election, in which he writes all these editorials which then get reprinted in Republican - Democratic Republican newspapers around the country, just libeling John Adams in the most personal of terms.
I mean, its particularly vicious stuff. But after the election, Caldwelder wanted to be rewarded by having a sinecure in the government and when it didnt happen, he then turned on Jefferson and became, of course, the first person to say - suggest that Thomas Jefferson had fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings. And, so I guess it's a reminder that what goes around comes around, and, you know - but it's also a reminder that this isn't the first time in American politics in which weve been concerned about the coarseness of the language used by the people in the media.
GROSS: Karl Rove, I really want to thank you for your time today. Thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. ROVE: Thanks, Terry.
GROSS: Karl Rove's new memoir is called "Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight." He's now a Fox News contributor. You can read an excerpt of Rove's book on our Web site, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcast of our show. You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.
I'm Terry Gross.
We'll close with a preview of a new CD by singer Catherine Russell, who joined us on FRESH AIR a couple of years ago. The CD is called "Inside This Heart of Mine," and it will be released April 13th.
(Soundbite of song, "Inside This Heart of Mine")
Ms. CATHERINE RUSSELL (Jazz and blues singer): (Singing) Outside it's sunny but in this heart of mine, the world is gloomy, the sun refuse to shine. I've done the best that I do, all for you, now we're through. Sunshine brings danger inside this heart of mine. Blue skies told me. Memories haunt me. You dont want me. Let me be alone with my pride. Outside is sunny but that's a real bad sign. Love is...
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, how profit is driving nuclear proliferation. We talk with David Albright, author of the new book "Peddling Peril: How the Secret Nuclear Trade Arms America's Enemies." Albright is the founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, which investigates and monitors nuclear proliferation.
Join us for the next FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
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